With less than 30 seconds remaining in the pivotal Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals on Saturday night, the Suns were behind the Bucks by one point, and Devin Booker had the ball in his hands. Everyone within the Footprint Center, from their main defender, PJ Tucker, to the fans in the front row (hello Adele), knew that Booker wanted to score.
And that was the problem. When Booker came on the line, he had to compete not only with Tucker, but also with former Defensive Player of the Year in Giannis Antetokounmpo. When Booker got stuck and tried to get away from Tucker and Antetokounmpo, he ran into Jrue Holiday, who abruptly ended possession as he ripped the ball out of Booker’s hands.
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Holiday started the counterattack and found Antetokounmpo skidding across the ground looking for an alley-oop. That sequence ended Phoenix’s hopes for a comeback and gave Milwaukee a 3-2 series lead.
“Honestly, it was a great team defense,” Holiday said. “I feel like we knew Booker wanted to take that last shot and he played great defense on him and made him turn his back and turn right at me. I guess he was in the right place at the right time.”
It wasn’t just the right place to be, it was the only place to be. The Suns offense has become too reliant on Booker to make things happen, and the Bucks know it. This isn’t the same team that was giving off the 2013-14 Spurs vibes in Game 2.
Phoenix has lost its last two games despite Booker scoring 82 points overall while shooting 55.7 percent from the field. The numbers have been impressive, but on too many possessions, Booker has worked in isolation and hit mid-range jump shots.
Through five games of the final, Booker has thrown 127 passes in total, via NBA.com tracking data. He made 92 passes in the first three games (30.7 per game) of the series, but only 35 passes in the last two games (17.5 per game). As a result, his possible assists have been reduced.
“Yeah, we have to move it,” Sun’s coach Monty Williams said. “We know that [Booker] I can do with the ball, but all we talked about was getting to the painting, finding guys in the back. We feel that it is a formula. There were some moments tonight where he just hung around a bit and against his defense, they don’t have to work against it. So we can score on iso ball, but for the defense to work we have to move it and to beat this team that’s what you have to do. “
This is not to say that Booker deserves the blame. He has been spectacular throughout the Suns’ playoff streak and recently carried a heavy load. But this group is at its best when everyone on the court is touching the ball, forcing defenders to rotate rather than carry a single player.
“We’ve had ball movement in games,” Williams said. “There have been games where we haven’t been shooting. Tonight, we were shooting when we wanted to, passing from side to side where the ball was moving. There just wasn’t enough of that tonight. So that’s something we can.” . “
There was certainly movement of the ball in the first quarter as the Suns scored 14 of their 19 field goal attempts and jumped to a 37-21 lead. That lead didn’t last long, though, as the Bucks cut the deficit from 16 to three at the 8:41 mark in the second quarter. Phoenix couldn’t stop himself, but he also didn’t have Booker on the court during that important stretch. He sat down to start the period and did not re-enter the game until 6:14 to go before the end of the first half.
“We’ve been a ball-moving team and sometimes change can make you do that,” Sun guard Chris Paul said of the stalemate. “Sometimes we exploit it and sometimes we don’t. We will go back and watch the movie and see what we could have done better.”
Phoenix is now on the brink of elimination, but the good news is that the offense requires adjustments, not a massive overhaul. One thing the Suns can do better: create more opportunities from beyond the arc. After drilling 20 of their 40 3-point attempts in Game 2, the Suns have shot 31, 23 and 19 3-pointers in the last three games of the NBA Finals.
“The ball when it moved tonight, it looked like Sun’s basketball,” Williams said. “But we just don’t generate enough three.”
They also need to collect more saves, which will allow them to get easy transition points, particularly for role players who don’t normally generate their own offense. Any point that comes out of a mid-court set is a huge boost in the final.
Phoenix’s main goal is to break out of the typical offensive cycle.
Hand the ball over to the booker. Try to score because no one else is doing anything. Nobody else does anything because they are expected to score. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Yes, Booker is talented enough to make it work for some possessions, maybe even a quarter. But the Suns have learned that it is not a recipe for success against the Bucks.